10 February, 2011

Is College A Waste Of Time?

James Altucher believes that attending college is a mistake, and that young people's time would be better spent starting a business or pursuing a hobby. His claim is that most students today don't really learn anything in college, and that achievement-minded people will succeed regardless of whether they go to college or not.

There are a number of things wrong with this. The first hinges on Altucher's idea of success, which I can only assume is defined by a high-earning private sector job. It's a safe assumption because (a) that's what he has, and (b) it's easy to come up with a number of jobs that really do require a college degree, no matter how smart and hard-working you are, and this goes against his generalization.

Take, for example, the combined industries of education and scientific research. You don't want your high school teachers to only have a high school diploma, and to do new meaningful research (i.e. stuff that wasn't discovered 100 years ago) you need to get beyond 10th grade biology. So these fields really do require a college education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 these combined industries made up 10.3% of nonfarm jobs in the U.S. That's a pretty signficant chunk to justify the sort of sweeping, unconstrained generalizations that Altucher is making.

The other argument I would make is that "achievement-minded" people end up with high-paying jobs because at some point early on they develop an interest in a field that happens to have high-paying jobs. When people find their "calling" can really vary from person to person, and is influenced by their exposure to different fields of work. Many people don't know what they want to do right out of high-school. Moreover, a young person is much more likely to be exposed to the right match for them on a college campus, where there is a tight clustering of experienced people from different fields actively trying to recruit new students.

One question is why do media outlets cater so much to people from the financial sector? If you include banking, insurance, securities, and other investments, people employed in this industry only account for 3.5% of all nonfarm jobs in the U.S. Yet, from watching TV news channels or listening to evening NPR programming one would gather that most people could benefit from the advice of financial gurus. In fact, their life-experience is pretty limited to maneuvering investments, and that's not really experience that you can extend to most people in the service industry, which accounts for most jobs in the U.S.


Cassady said...

Wow, this guy is so full of it. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, NOR should everyone be. That was his counter-argument when the host suggested that: well, everyone should try. Yeah right.

What I would like to see is which colleges he's taking his data from at which kids "aren't learning very much." There is a big difference between those accepted to Harvard, as he uses in one example, and those going to a small community college or tech school. Obviously, the type of person who even applies to Harvard is in a different place educationally and motivationally from those who pursue "vocational" education, shall we say.

Higgs, I think you're right on about his standards for success. Further, I think that alone is reason to discount his argument. He just can't understand that not everyone is like him, or wants to be.

spencer said...

It's possible that you don't learn anything (or much) in college, but that it's still valuable from an individual's perspective. It's hard for employers to tell who is achievement-minded and who isn't, especially when they just have the same high school education that everyone else has. Going through the wringer of college classes, studying, and tests proves that you're an achievement-minded type, even if you don't learn anything that increases your productivity in a job. Economists call this "signaling".

Also, Altucher mostly ignores the reality that many eighteen-year-olds don't have the luxury of taking a year off to do stand-up comedy. It's great that his daughters can always fall back on his considerable wealth (he's a hedge fund manager) but this is far from true for most people.

Eremita said...

Exactly. As Cassady and I were recently discussing, there is something pretty classist and offensive about this suggestion. Even if we grant/agree with Altucher that young people don't learn much in college, they do come away with a piece of paper that is the major part of a ticket into the middle class. The people whom this paper would do the MOST for in terms of securing a financial future above the poverty line are those very people for whom college is largely inaccessible.

While this might be a sensational topic to discuss as advice for the well-off, it is - at best - positively changing the lives of very few young people. If such advice does anything to discourage efforts aimed at making college accessible to the poor in this country, then it does more harm than good.

Elliot said...

this guy that i read pretty regularly writes a lot about this subject. he's in the college-skeptical camp, but not fanatically so - he mostly sees himself as a partial corrective to the conventional wisdom that everyone must go to college. here's a good intro post to that effect:


and this is his education page:


Cassady said...

That everyone must go to college is just as much a fallacy, though. Certainly, I see it as a strong positive step in one's life, and one that I would like to see everyone (who wants to) taking--being able to take, that is.

However, not every job, every career path, requires a college education, and really that's ok--at least right now. There are a lot of fulfilling options out there for people who are happy in a certain mode of being. It's unfortunate that those options are devalued in everyday discourse because, as Eremita pointed out, that little piece of paper is very much what Spencer called 'signalling.'